Shelf Awareness for Readers Review: Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine by by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster

This review* for Shelf Awareness for Readers was challenging to write, both for the need to capture complex ideas in 250 words and for required refresher on the many interpretations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It is widely accepted that the core of play centers on Hamlet’s indecision and inability to act, and ultimately, to revenge his father’s death. But what lies behind this indecision – what explains this gap? That is the preoccupation of this slim and lively volume, and Critchley and Jamieson tour the analyses offered by a variety of “outsider” thinkers and offer plenty of opinions of their own.

I love writing reviews in part because it forces me to be clear enough in my own thoughts, to distill them and capture them in a very few words.  That process takes time but is essential.  It also takes time and distance detach from one idea and see something in a new, more objective or more satisfying way.  On rereading it now, weeks after writing it, I don’t think I quite got there.  The review ended up affirming that conventional interpretation of Hamlet, rather than showing how the book captures the varied and contradictory reasons for and implications of Hamlet’s inaction and the pleasures of that excursion.  Nor did I adequately address the authors’ take on the play’s suggestions of nihilism and alienation.

Salon‘s review by Laura Miller got at this quality of Critchley and Jamieson’s book while commenting on the book with appreciation and insight.  Miller writes that the authors avoid the conclusion that Hamlet is a nihilist play in large part because Ophelia retains her passionate commitment to Hamlet, and openness to love.

In retrospect, I would connect those dots more clearly.

The Wall St. Journal review by Eric Ormsby also had wonderful comments, notably that “Much of the enduring freshness of “Hamlet” comes from the uncanny feeling that Shakespeare was as startled by the drama as we are, that a kind of intensity of amazement was guiding his pen.”  Ormsby says “Hamlet is enigma personified; that is his strength. But he is enigmatic to himself; that is his weakness. We never know what he’ll do or say next, and he seems to be as surprised as we are by his own belated decisions or sudden actions.”

At an event at McNally Jackson, Critchley noted that the play retains its pull because it resists any pre-existing grid people want to impose on it to support their interpretation and philosophical view of the world.  Christian redemptive, Romantic, heroic, psychoanalytical, nihilist interpretations all miss the point in small or large ways, as though Shakespeare says, “no, not that, either.”  It was one of the best author events I’ve attended in terms of author interaction and audience attentiveness.

*My review:

In the lively and thoughtful Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine, the husband-and-wife team of philosopher Simon Critchley and psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster engage closely with the text of Shakespeare’s play in brief, conversational chapters, unpacking its many layers and interpretations.

They argue that Hamlet’s tragedy rests on his inability to bridge the gap between thought and action, starting with his failure to avenge his father’s death, and show that this gap reappears throughout the play. Hamlet can do “nothing” despite his anguished plotting; he is paralyzed by the horror of life’s wrongs. They examine very different interpretations of the play by such “outsiders” as James Joyce, Hegel, Freud and Melville, considering issues of historical context; whether it celebrates Christian redemption; the nature of tragedy; and the problem of nihilism. In a particularly intriguing analysis, they question whether Ophelia, equally battered by loss and madness but never losing her ability to love or desire or act, is more the play’s hero.

Critchley and Jamieson’s take always feels fresh, in part because they address a range of interpretations, many of which they are unafraid to challenge. On Freud and psychoanalytic criticism, they write, “It is not a matter of putting Hamlet on the couch… but rather to hear something in Hamlet that allows us to put psychoanalysis on the couch and to the test.” Erudite, witty and probing, Stay! Illusion offers new insights into a literary touchstone while deepening our appreciation for its complexity and its enigmatic core.


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